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Today's trends for tomorrow's business
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Reading time: 4 minutes

3D print your way to the bank

Remember those fun booths at the local shopping mall where you used to drop in a few coins and get instant pictures of you, your friends and family members in sometimes goofy poses?
Well, some small to midsized business (SMB) owner made money every time you did that. It was called “passive income,” and entire business models have been built around it.
Now, with the rise of lower-cost higher-performance 3D printers, we’re about to see a whole new approach where SMBs give consumers the opportunity to create all sorts of curiosities.
Case in point: A New York startup called “Beheld 3D” is coming out with what one of the world’s first 3D photo booths based on 3D scanning technology. Founded by Industrial Designer Kat Kinkead and former Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen, the company’s technology lets people enter a booth and digitally scan images of themselves, creating selfie avatars for social sharing. If they’re more into physical keepsakes, they can take home a 3D printed version of themselves, their loved ones or just about anything else. It’s thought the whole thing will cost consumers about $40 a pop to start.
So, you might have your doubts about whether anyone will pay that much or whether this idea will be a hit. Regardless, it still points to how SMBs could use 3D printers to create passive income in novel ways.

Potential economic impact of 3D printing

A report by HP and ATKearney found that during the next 10 years, 3 to 5 million new jobs will be created because of 3D printing. Between $4 trillion and $6 trillion of the global economy is expected to be disrupted and redistributed. New revenue potential for 3D printing could reach $600 billion to $900 billion annually in the United States.
When one stops to consider that 99.7 percent of U.S. companies are small businesses, it stands to reason that a huge chunk of all this 3D printing momentum will emerge from startups and SMBs.

The 4th Industrial Revolution

We’re at an inflection point in manufacturing (some call it the 4th Industrial Revolution) where 3D printing is about to become to goods what the personal computer was to information. By that, we mean it is enabling greater personalization of end products and solutions.
Imagine, for example, upending how some SMBs sell fashion jewelry to customers door-to-door and at local fairs. Many depend on large multi-level marketing conglomerates to supply the goods, which consultants often buy and either store in their garages or have drop-shipped to buyers. It’s a terribly inefficient and arguably unprofitable model that can be highly frustrating for almost everyone outside of corporate offices. At the same time, customers pretty much get what they see in catalogs with very little opportunity to customize products to their own preferences.
But what if, instead, an SMB used a light-weight 3D printer to create and produce jewelry on-the-fly for interested consumers? Or even better, what if consumers could do it themselves at a kiosk in a mall, airport or that same local fair. Suddenly, the SMB is generating passive income while creating greater experiences for end customers.

Costs and options

Arguably, such scenarios don’t come cheap. While costs for 3D printers have come down in recent years, purchasing a business-worthy one might not be an option for the average small company. In fact, while a consumer 3D printer can cost just a few hundred dollars, industrial-strength machines run 10s of 1,000s of dollars. And that doesn’t even consider operating costs, such as quality materials that can be the difference between an okay 3D-printed product and a superior one.
As such, the best option for most SMBs would be to consult local custom manufacturing or “service bureaus,” such as Forecast3D, Proto Labs, Fast Radius and GoProto. These companies have invested in the machinery and have the expertise to create quality products that small businesses can depend upon and feel comfortable delivering to customers.
For instance, Forecast 3D, one of the oldest and largest privately-held 3D printing service providers in the United States, recently installed 12 of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers, making it the first company with the capacity to provide full-run 3D manufacturing – from design to prototyping to production – for its primarily small-business clientele.
And in 2016, Fast Radius partnered with UPS to launch a full-scale, on-demand 3D manufacturing network based in various UPS Stores to make the manufacturing process simpler and more accessible. UPS now offers 3D printing services for manufacturing needs, such as prototyping, in about 30 stores.
The opportunity for innovative startups and SMBs to utilize 3D printing for new business models geared toward passive income has never been greater. Service bureaus can help bring creative ideas to life. In the next few years, don’t be surprised to see businesses built around 3D printing becoming as common as, well, photo booths were in malls not so long ago.

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